Being a Citizen Shouldn’t Be So Hard! Part 1: Human Nature

NOTE: This is part 1 of a multipart series. More to come over the next few days. See Part 2.

This series is a work in process. I’m counting on readers and others to help me sharpen this discussion so I can present it more formally for the Knight Commission to consider.

So please comment below or e-mail me to share your thoughts and questions. Thanks!

If you want to strengthen communities, it helps to ask: What defines a community, really? Is it mostly a matter of “where” (geography)?

Last week I got into an interesting discussion with some folks at the Knight Foundation and elsewhere about whether “local” is the only (or most important) defining characteristic of a community. This was sparked by an event held last week by the new Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy — an effort to recommend both public and private measures that would help US communities better meet their information needs.

From the time I first heard of this project, I thought it was an excellent idea. It bothers me deeply that many (perhaps most) Americans routinely “tune out” to issues of law, regulation, and government that not only affect them, but also that they can influence — at least to some extent. (I say this fully aware that I often fall into the “democratically tuned out” category on several fronts.)

The problem then becomes, of course, that when citizens don’t participate, their interests are easy to ignore or trample.

Why do so many Americans abdicate their power as citizens in a democracy? It seems to me that many are too quick to “blame the victim,” pointing to widespread apathy, ignorance, or a prevailing sense of helplessness as common democracy cop-outs.

I think there’s a different answer: The way our democracy attempts to engage citizens actively opposes human nature. That is, it just doesn’t mesh well with how human beings function cognitively or emotionally.

Fighting human nature is almost always a losing battle — especially if you want people to participate and cooperate….

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